What happens when artificial intelligence (or robots) replace all humans in workplaces? This is a million-dollar question about the future of work for our generation.
As human societies, we have come to terms with work. In everyday socio-political relations, work defines us. It tells us what we do and how that matters to society.
The Christian Protestant ethics are sustained on the logic of working hard. As the saying in the Indian language of Kannada goes: kayakave kailasa (“work is worship”); we consider work a godly act.
Apart from earning our livelihood, work also helps us keep ourselves focused and sane. The act of work also allows one to engage peers in society with similar experiences. It is what makes us all Aristotelean “social animals”.
Now, think of a situation—almost as much a plausible one—where barely any jobs are left in society. Specifically, one fine day, all our jobs are now replaced by machines. Machines engage in moderation, sustain and improve their productivity, and increase output.
Robots could produce everything, at least hypothetically. Now, what happens?
This anathema is not new to our society. When we invented machines, factories may have replaced a lot of human hands, but jobs persisted. When computers were invented, society then thought through the same lens of a world where there would not be any jobs left. But this did not happen in both earlier instances.
Some optimists may even dispassionately argue that it will not happen even in future. In future, we will all go to work – although how these jobs may persist may be different, but work endures – like we did almost every other day before that.
That’s a fair enough logic here. However, unlike earlier ages, today’s age is based on automation. Automation, by its very virtue, refers to replacing human agency.
Today, automated cars take you places; robotic AI assistants work better than the actual ones; writing—which takes a writer a million days not having to deal with writer’s block, could be done in seconds using GPT-like systems. The logic is that AI can move mountains, quite literally, today.
Inequality and the future of work
The issue is whether or not AI will replace all of our work tomorrow; it is much more perverse. It entails fundamental questions of who controls these machines. Who does it tend to benefit? And if an ordinary individual does not work tomorrow because a machine elsewhere has taken over their job, how do they make their livelihood?
Historically, this fundamental shift—from humans to machines—has caused increased productivity and, thereby, more money. But who gains from it?
Studies have essentially shown that despite the increased output and productivity, only the top-tier individuals that make up 0.01 per cent of our society reap the maximum benefits, and society is almost exactly left in its original position. The challenge is resolving this issue in a world where productivity is all the higher (with machines doing a better job than humans), and there are no human jobs, per se.
There are two fundamental issues here:
- What happens to humans and their basic instinct to work when barely any jobs are left now?
- How do we account for social equity so that people can support their livelihood?
What do we do when we have no work to do?
To illustrate the first problem, I take an example from Austria. In 1929, an entire community in Austria became unemployed overnight. Reason: the textile industry that provided jobs for the entire community shut itself down.
Drawing on this example, one social psychologist, Marie Jahoda, thought of the “deprivation theory of unemployment”. Jahoda proposed that unemployment does not merely cause financial difficulties but challenges the basic notion of what it makes of human beings. Work. It fulfils an essential aspect of what we do and how we think of our societal role.
To solve this problem, when robots take over all the jobs, it will be the most challenging task. What are you going to do with all the free time at hand? If there is no work, then what? Where do you gain all your life’s satisfactions from, and how else will you aspire for anything? This thinking will invariably pose a much more complex challenge to our society.
What else are you going to do?
I certainly do not have answers yet. But I think, somewhat optimistically, we can focus more on what we want to do.
Maybe play more video games, watch movies, go out, socialise, take trips, read books, play with your kids, spend more time with your partner, and sit in a corner and paint. In a future world, our aspirations will be sustained as they are today, except you are recognised – and perhaps we would all crave that desire for recognition in a world where robots take over. This looks bleak, right?
How do we pay weekly rent when we have no work?
Now, onto the problem of money and livelihood. How do you balance out all the joblessness? How will people buy ever bread? (Remember, the French Revolution began when Marrie Antoinette asked the starving peasants to buy a cake when they complained of having no bread.)
Given that all the robots are owned by a few industrial giants, private firms, and governments, what will the ordinary people do? How do we think of an equitable society?
The challenge with AI doing all the work is that we do not have any other source of income. But this challenge will not come to us suddenly—like one fine day, you wake up like Gregor Samsa, turned into an insect—but the process is gradual.
During this transition period, we will think of ways to reconcile with not working. Humans are creative beings. We think of ways to deal with challenges in multiple ways. We produce ideas.
I hope that we will be able to think of a post-work society when the time comes. I hope governments wake up to this fact sooner than later.
Universal basic income (question mark)
In that regard, several thinkers in future research are discussing ways in which money could be shared between people. When robots produce products, they also need to be purchased. It also means that you would need money to buy them.
Now, in a jobless world, you would have to have the income to purchase things, which is essential for both companies and individuals in society.
A better mechanism would be to think of a society where the government distributes a certain income to all individuals.
And who pays for it?
Probably the corporates who have replaced the labour with automated machines. This way, corporates could now sell products to individuals with the excessive money generated through robot’s work.
Some have thought about how the “universal basic income”—like schemes could better provide people with a regular income to cover their essential living costs. Here, the puzzle is that if the state gives people money, who will pay taxes? How will it generate its revenues? (Some of these questions will perhaps take me to another blog as such.)
It is also perhaps interesting to consider whether robots will run our governments. And here, we could think of the limits to robots’ invasion of our lives. But intuitively, if you think of it, the robots run our society. Governments, they represent us–for whom?
All puzzling questions and no answers. But these ideas are a starting point for thinking about how human society could transform itself against an overhaul of work, where robots do all our work.
This website and the newsletter (fuzzy notes) have been a labour of love. While they are free to access (and will continue to be free), they are not free to create. I spend significant time researching, writing, and proofing every article I publish here, apart from all the logistical aspects of buying and managing the domain and hosting plans. Each article is written meticulously to help fellow readers (such as yourself) get the best knowledge, which is also witty and articulate in this outlook. You may reach out to me at [email protected] (and tell me what you liked about the essay you may have just read or if you want me to write on anything you wish to read). If you have benefitted from reading articles on my website and the newsletter, consider buying me a coffee (as a token of love and appreciation ♥). If you cannot do so now, it’s okay! (understandably, each of us has our problems to deal with every day.) You can still do something else: share the article with someone who may like it.